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An incestuous brother-sister duo! A psychotic killer who stalks
transsexuals! An underground S&M club called Mister Butterfly! An opera
with a fluorescent red heart! In its irresistible mix of outre artiness
commercial sleaze, Mascara plays as if Werner Schroeter had set out to
direct an erotic thriller in the style of Joe Eszterhas.
Unthinkable in any normal universe, but Mascara is most defiantly NOT a normal film. A box-office catastrophe on its release, and still barely known outside a small clique of twisted souls, this is a cult movie waiting to happen. As deliciously warped as anything by Almodovar or John Waters, it's all the more campily compelling for being played with a straight face.
In a queer inversion of the Orpheus myth, it is Woman (a smoulderingly beautiful Charlotte Rampling) who inhabits a sunlit above-ground world of music, art and 'healthy' sexuality. (All three summed up by her affair with a hunky opera designer, Derek de Lint.) It is Man (Michael Sarrazin as her deranged sibling) who wallows in a subterranean sexual Hell of his own making.
Brief but surprisingly graphic shots treat us to leather bondage gear, chain-mail masks and the scariest Tina Turner drag act you are ever likely to see. The subtle androgyny of Rampling's persona becomes an eerie reflection of the real-life transsexuals (Berlin cabaret legend Romy Haag and Italian beauty Ewa Robins) who round out the film's cast.
And to make it that wee bit more perverse, the lurid goings-on are set to some serenely lyrical opera excerpts by Gluck, Bellini and Strauss. You'll either adore or loathe Mascara - there's no middle ground - but guaranteed you've never seen anything quite like it.
Look, I'm not suggesting Mascara is an even vaguely good film, but... who
cares, it's a classic sample of Eurotrash culture. Another masterpiece
the "quality" merchants at Cannon film, I'm just surprised it hasn't found
solid cult audience in the midnight movie circuit or 1980's retro sleaze
market(uh, is there such a market?).
It has Charlotte Rampling, queen of Eurotrash (remember the Night Porter?) who, oddly enough, has the most "straight" role here. As usual, she channels Lauren Bacall (good looking woman, she), and gets through a fairly lackluster part. She's always better than her material and wears some very stylish togs for someone who just works as an interpreter. Michael Sarazin, former pretty boy and Jacqueline Bisset boyfriend (he was in a good tv version of Frankenstein) is now a little long in the tooth, but still has a striking appearance and soulful eyes. Here he's a somewhat unbelievable Police Superintendent and has some wild scenes that come off... shall we say, a trifle campy. Derek de Lint (from Unbearable Lightness of Being, a fav film of mine) is a heterosexual costume designer for the opera. De Lint, a popular star in European film, must have taken this part for the money. He's mostly a foil for Sarazin and love interest for Rampling.
But there's more. Next we have cult performer Romy Haag (a well known transgender artiste from the 70's through 90's, friend of Bowie's, etc.) as the madam-manager of an underground club where closeted bigwigs go to hear drag queens, etc. lip sink to opera (yes, when there's operatic music that's a sure sign of Eurotrash). Topping it off is the gorgeous Eva Robin's (that's how her name is usually spelled), Italian transgendered star of music, tv, fashion and film as a character with the absurd name of "Pepper". Now Robin's is about as unlikely a "Pepper" as I've ever encountered. She looks gorgeous and has a scene that prominently displays her manhood front and center. This was a good 5 years before the Crying Game. Shameless exploitation? ... you bet. But what happens next is a shocking reminder of how much violence there really is against transgendered people and how it's often reported with a kind of titillation rather than as a human rights issue. The cinematography and mood in this film are striking, even as the script and some of the acting are laughable. It all made me want to take a trip to Europe, wear something fashionable and walk around some nameless urban landscape late at night looking for a niteclub to go to as blue signs flash "cambio, wechsel, change."
Mascara could be a good date movie, if you're dating someone with really sleazy, bizarre tastes. I found it infinitely more entertaining than Showgirls, and look how beloved that flick has become since it had its initial flush down the toilet?
I saw this when it came out 20+ years ago and it stuck with me. On
second viewing, it's a camp classic. What makes a cult film? It's
intangible, but odd flourishes like dubbing the child's voice with an
adult's, or the bevy of sinister transvestites, contribute greatly.
Charlotte Rampling is beautiful and tortured. She also wears some
really great Claude Montana outfits. Michael Sarazin plays her brother
and though they grew up together as children, they have completely
different accents. The best scenes are in the club, which is a
delicious blend of cabaret/new wave/opera with a decadent Eurotrash
clientèle. You will rewind a lot. There are plot twists and a
glow-in-the-dark dress. This movie deserves a second life, have fun.
This oddity from Belgium has the makings of a camp classic of sorts. It
certainly has a few ingredients that put it into that particular ball
park. It's about a police superintendent who is a serial murderer. He
has a possibly-maybe incestuous relationship with his sister and he
frequently visits an underground club populated by transvestites and
transsexuals who like to lip-synch to opera. He becomes obsessed with
an opera gown with glowing red heart and subsequently embroils its
designer into his sordid world.
You'd have to describe this as a slice of 80's Eurotrash. It sets out to shock, and at times it sure does. In the single best moment in the movie we discover that one of the superintendent's female companion called Pepper is not all woman. It's a real shocker of a scene that will take almost everybody completely off-guard. Pepper is played by Eva Robin's who also had a striking role in Dario Argento's 80's giallo Tenebrae, where he/she appeared as the mysterious red-shoe woman in the recurring dream sequence.
It would be wrong to say that this is a great film. It certainly isn't but it does have enough delirious scenes and ideas to mean that it remains in the memory. The scenes in the club are a good example of over-the-top camp excess. And it is unusual how many 80's Euro films decided to merge high-brow opera with low-brow thrillers. Don't think, just look.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Didn't really know what I was in for, but this film plays like a cheapo non-gialli version of Dressed to Kill. That's what I can sum up what makes for a very strange viewing experience. Charlotte Rampling, who always seems to get in these weird movies, plays a lady whose brother, Michael Sarrazin, is over his head in the weird, weird world of S&M. SPOILER ALERT! Midway through the film is a scene that will literally knock your socks off. Rampling is pretty much wasted in the film, as I had hoped she would be more prominent. Its more of a weird showcase for Sarrazin. The ending has him in Diva Drag which caught me off guard and doubling over. He doesn't make a very convincing transvestite. So as a thriller Mascara is a failure but as cinematic oddity it rates just average.
The movie starts with Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) driving, and she nearly
runs over a man who was crossing the street. They exchange some words,
but seem to take a liking to each other.
She meets up with Bert, a police superintendent; they're both dressed in formalwear. He stops at a crime scene that is particularly seedy. A dingy apartment, with a partially clothed dead woman in a bathtub full of water. The police on the scene think it was a suicide, but Bert points out it had to have been a murder. This death has no connection (that I'm aware of) to anything else in the movie, except to set the stage for the seediness to follow.
Bert and Gaby proceed to the opera, for which he has a great liking (along with white dresses). In the opera, the female lead playing Eurydice wears a sparkly white dress with lights beneath the cloth forming a large blinking red heart. Bert is absolutely captivated by the dress.
Bert insists on meeting the designer of the dress backstage, and it turns out to be Chris, the man Gaby almost ran over. Gaby and Chris become even more smitten with each other.
Bert persuades Chris to let him borrow the dress for a special friend. Chris goes along on the provision that he gets to do the dressing and undressing, thinking the friend is Gaby. Bert takes him to a well-hidden underground opera S&M club, populated by wealthy men and quite a lot of transsexuals. Performers lip-synch to opera songs. Gaby is not there, but Bert's love Pepper. A death occurs, and although Chris is innocent of it, it looks like the blame will fall on him, particularly when Bert forces Chris to make repeat visits to the club. Meanwhile, Chris and Gaby try to strengthen their relationship, which Gaby finds hard to do.
It was a pretty good movie, well-made. I'm sure the transsexual club limits its appeal, and be forewarned that there is some full-frontal male/female nudity - yikes....
Over the top, but fascinating thriller. Charlotte Rampling adds a bit
of class to the proceedings (doesn't she always?) but also gets less
screen time than our other two protagonists, Sarrazin and de Lint.
Sarrazin fares better, only because he's chewing the scenery, and
looking fabulous while doing it. de Lint is a combination of phoning it
in and treating the material straight; this film is FAR from straight.
The film does revel in the perversity shown on screen-- we can be optimistic and say it's a celebration, but alas, it isn't. To be fair, everyone is perverse in this film, so it's not really just exploiting homosexuality, transgender, prostitution etc. Not exactly a condemnation, more of a LOOK AT THIS! And look we do, and we will be amused if one is used to this sort of thing.
Direction picks up flair in both the high class opera house, and the underground high class fetish club. The dresses are fantastic. There's a hysterical ending. There's Rampling's eyes; oh those eyes! Give it a watch if you want high budget camp.
It's almost as if the film-makers only had enough material for 25-30
minutes after which they told the actors to 'just make it up as you go
along' because really that's how it seems. The ending is dreadful. Poor
Charlotte Rampling, looks lovely but has nothing much to do beyond
being neurotic. Michael Sarrazin somehow convinces as a Belgian police
superintendent despite being an foppish Opera buff with an American
The trouble is how ever I looked at it I couldn't shake the feeling that Mascara was just plain exploitative. Sure the rich men are exploiting their playmates, but I actually think it's more than that: it feels like the director set out to make an exploitation film. It didn't feel camp to me.
The location really does the film no favours. I could certainly see this happening in New York or Paris, but a sea-side town on the Belgian coast with it own very high-end fetish club? I don't think so. The faded seaside grandeur gives the movie an inappropriately wistful feel.
Some of the actors are dubbed with strange voices. I'm not sure what the aim here was but it just doesn't work.
There are few powerful scene - the opera ones for instance. In the first 25 minutes there is some sizzling dialogue. And the dress with it's illuminating heart is a very striking and novel idea. Those reasons pull my rating of the film to 5/10 otherwise it'd be a straight 2/10.
For a nominal "suspense" film, this provides precious few thrills. The
romantic subplot involving wimpy, neurotic Charlotte Rampling and the
less-than-compelling Derek de Lint goes nowhere. Pointless fantasy sequences
are introduced, and the backstory relating to the serial killings of the
local drag population is never developed.
On the plus side, the cinematography is a treat-- long moody sequences shot in a half-empty Belgian seacoast resort. And this is, after all, the film that pioneered the "Crying Game" scene-- reason enough to see it, in my book.
So imagine if Bob Guccione kidnapped Werner Schroeter, forced him onto
a diet of magic mushrooms, and at a point of a gun and with the regular
administration of scopolamine put him to work making a serial killer
movie. That's Mascara.
I actually can't believe I just watched that movie. I had an odd defeated day, and I got some Mazarin Omnipollo beer in (tastes as good as it sounds) and knew I needed to see something off the chain. I hadn't figured out how far off the chain this movie was, psychologically it was like being in an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon watching this movie. In my long film watching experience it has set a new high watermark for the bizarre. Carlo Ponti famously exclaimed "What?" when he saw a film Polanski made that was then in homage called "What?". But Polanski was a mere amateur at confusion compared to Patrick Conrad, the director of Mascara.
Police superintendent Bert Sanders (Michael Sarrazin) is an opera maven, and regularly attends with his sister Gaby Hart (Charlotte Rampling). There is more than a small hint that these two have a closer relationship than is recommendable between siblings. Sanders, in his late 40s, lives in with sis, and has massive problems with sublimated desire and sexual confusion. He visits a secret underground club where leading citizens dress in black tie, and watch drag queens lip sync Strauss and Gluck as well as pop music (including a Kris Kristofferson song). There's also some highly stylised S&M going on in antechambers. He's in a chaste relationship with a transsexual girlfriend who does cabaret at the club. When she comes onto him, all hell breaks loose, the tonne of psychosexual gelignite in his head blows sky high and he spends the rest of the movie alternating between catatonia and psychosis, digging himself in deeper whilst covering his tracks and trying to stop his sister getting with the dressmaker for the local opera house.
Parts of the movie have genuine pathos and are tres trans sympatico, but others seem almost hideously exploitational. The impression comes across that Partick Conrad is messing with you with some of the twists, like an experiment in blowing the viewer's mind.
And you know Charlotte Rampling is in the midst of all this acting her skin off at points. Unbelievable. She was not afraid of appearing in off the charts projects for sure, The Flesh of the Orchid is another superb example (no way could she have pretended that she was off for a straightforward gig with that one, not when James Hadley Chase wrote it!!!).
Wanna get unhinged? Put on some Mascara baby.
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